3 Essential Habits All Leaders Should Focus On

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Authored by

NLI Staff
Leadership models tend to be exhaustive, rather than essential, which makes them harder to put to use. Research suggests three key habits to focus on.

SANTA CLARA, CA — Leadership frameworks can get out of hand in a hurry.

Even though an organization might have good intentions when putting pen to paper to establish its values, an essential list can quickly become exhaustive. From a cognitive standpoint, this expansion has tremendous downsides. People don’t just forget the added values; they forget the whole framework.

Based on a 2017 research projects involving 15 leadership program providers, 220 programs, and 1,286 outcomes, NLI has determined that organizations find the most value when leaders home in on creating habits in three essential areas: Future, People, Execution.

Dr. Heidi Grant, Chief Science Officer at the NeuroLeadership Institute, explored each habit at this year’s Culture & Leadership Insight Lab. Check out each one below.


Given that our brains crave certainty, we don’t really do a great job thinking about the future. Instead we think about the short term and focus our efforts on what’s nearer than what’s farther away. Psychologists refer to this as a distance bias.

Leaders, of course, need to be thinking about where their organizations are headed. That means rejecting the need for certainty and instead looking for ways to create clarity. It’s far easier to be directionally correct about where to direct resources and efforts, and staying agile when change comes, than guaranteeing each decision maps to how the world is changing.


Effective leadership requires effective inclusion. Brain and behavior science, however, knows that focusing on people means intentionally overriding the effects of being in power. A great deal of research has found that as people accumulate power, they lose the ability to take others’ perspectives. They focus more on vision and goals, rather than details and people.

To avoid the blinding effects of power, which can keep leaders isolated from important goings on in their culture, they can actively promote dissent in meetings and projects. People closer to the action, who feel empowered to speak up, can alert leaders to obstacles they otherwise might miss.


Psychologists have identified a crucial gap between wanting to do something and actually following through. They call it the “knowing-doing gap.” Leaders may generate a slew of great ideas, and sell their teams on the lasting impact those ideas could have, but they won’t see any value if they can’t turn ideas into action.

At NLI, the operating framework for culture change is Priorities, Habits, and Systems. Companies often focus on priorities — they get buy-in on what changes to make. But they don’t establish which habits manifest those values, and which systems support the habits.

When leaders focus on all three of these buckets — Future, People, Execution — they go from navigating a laundry list of competencies that hardly anyone remembers to an essential list of just a few. These essential principles can then form the basis for widespread culture change people don’t just remember, but put into practice on a daily basis.

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Effective leadership requires thinking ahead, owning commitments, and anchoring on solutions.

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